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Okay Public School families, this is where I introduce you to something from the Homeschooling world that can be useful for families like ours. Have you ever heard of Life of Fred by Stanley F. Schmidt, Ph.D?
The “Life of Fred” series is a very unusual way to teach math, science, history, literature, and plain old common sense, in an integrated format. Half chapter book, half graphic novel, half textbook (hmmmm… those fractions don’t add up); the Life of Fred books teach through story and humor. The hero of the books, Fred, is a five year-old math professor at Kittens University, somewhere in Kansas.
I’ve been a bit harsh on these books in the past because Life of Fred uses a lot of algorithms early on, especially in the Fractions book. I’m much more of a Constructivist teacher, so too many algorithms, too early, makes me nervous. I also don’t think Life of Fred would be good for “mathy ” 1st-3rd graders who were emergent readers. The reading would hold back their math, which would be very frustrating.
But! If you were to take the opposite type of child, let’s say a kid who loved words, stories, pictures and funny jokes but who wasn’t very interested in math, then Life of Fred is absolutely perfect. I was just talking with a teacher friend last week who was dealing with that exact situation. “Have you heard of Life of Fred?” I asked her. “It’s just what you need.”
Another important thing to note about Life of Fred is that it is a spiraling curriculum. This means that Dr. Schmidt introduces a concept and then circles back to it later on. So if your child doesn’t quite understand something in chapter one, don’t worry, it will be reviewed again later.
Right now my son is reading Life of Fred: Pre-algebra 1 with Biology. In terms of Algebra, there’s nothing harder than Hands On Equations or Continental Math League. But there is a lot of other stuff, like fractions, decimals, and conversion factors. Kids with strong fifth grade math skills would do fine with this book.
I’ve been reading Life of Fred : Pre-Algebra 2 with Economics for fun. I’ve also got Hot X: Algebra Exposed! by Danica McKellar on my reading list. It doesn’t hurt for a mom to brush up on math she learned 25 years ago, right? Luckily, Life of Fred makes that pretty fun.
Bruce (6) talked me into purchasing two of Stanley Schmidt’s new Life of Fred elementary series, Life of Fred Cats and Life of Fred Dogs. We had read Life of Fred Fractions earlier in the year, and Bruce really loved it. I was only lukewarm about LOF Fractions, because I thought it relied on traditional algorithms too much, and that goes against my Constructivist philosophy for teaching math. But since the books are so inexpensive I decided to go for it. Besides, when your son is begging you to buy math books, shouldn’t that get an automatic purchase?
I decided to buy the two highest books in the LOF elementary series, because Bruce is at the third grade math level. To me as a former 3rd/4th grade teacher, LOF Fractions seems to be at the 4.5 grade level. I was hoping that Cats and Dogs would be at the 2nd or 3rd grade level respectfully. That seems logical, right?
Wrong! It turns out that LOF Cats is more at the first grade math level, but 3rd grade reading level. Bruce burned through LOF Cats in about an hour, reading it as soon as he came home from a backpacking trip with his dad. Mostly the entire math was review for him, although yesterday he did bust out with “Putting your socks and shoes on is not commutative, Mom.” In retrospect, if we had had these books when Bruce was 4 they could have been a really fun bedtime read aloud together.
Before I realized that Bruce was going to read the entire book in one sitting, I had made this really nice notebook to go with it for him to write down his answers. It’s back to school season right now, and I picked up a whole stack of spiral notebooks the other day for $.10 each.
Bruce ended up not using my nifty notebook at all. Stanley Schmit makes a big deal about how important it is for kids to write down the answers as they go along in the book. I would agree with him on this point, if the math was at the appropriate level. But I’m not going to make my son write down the answer to 7 + 9 when he is capable of doing square roots and fractions. That would just be busy work.
I’ve heard the argument made before that LOF Fractions could be its own stand-alone mathematics curriculum. I strongly disagree, but can see that this argument has some valid points. There is no way anyone could say that LOF Cats could be its own curriculum, however. That would be ridiculous. It’s too bad that Schmit didn’t include the “bridge” section between every five chapters like he did in the Fractions book.
Final thoughts? I’m not very impressed with LOF Cats, but will probably bring it out when Jenna turns 4 and we will have fun with it. I also respect Schmit’s assertion that the books are cheap but well-bound. They will indeed last a long time. I will keep them on my shelves for many decades and someday when I’m old Bruce and Jenna will visit home with my grandkids and say: “Oooh! Life of Fred! Can we borrow these, Mom?”
Bruce is nearing the very end of Life of Fred Fractions, and one of the last lessons was about square numbers and square roots. He had learned these concepts a while ago, when I taught him the basics of multiplying, but he was unfamiliar with the square root sign. This lesson was a good review. To me, it is also a perfect example of how a Constructivist approach to teaching mathematics solidifies conceptual understanding.
First we built out multiples of 2, 3, and 4. Then we looked to see which arrays were square, and which were rectangle.
Next we labeled all of the numbers. I then asked Bruce to identify the “square” numbers.
Since we hadn’t built out the fives, I had Bruce square 5 on the whiteboard.
We then moved onto the concept of square roots. Bruce is still a bit confused on this point. To be fair, we had just started the square root portion of the lesson when Jenna came running in and scattered all of the blocks! We’ll have to try again later.
We took our fraction lesson outside today. Bruce has been reading Life of Fred Fractions and is now on chapter 28th. I like to try to include as many hands on lessons as possible, so we did this one spur of the moment, on reducing and multiplying. Normally I’d do this activity with M’nM’s and peanut butter, but I didn’t have any.
Here we start with a review of naming fractions, and the terms numerator and denominator.
This is where you “peanut butter” them together, (if we had peanut butter), to reduce the fraction.
Next we reviewed multiplication. First we did with the algorithm from Life of Fred. So starting out, Bruce knew the answer was going to be 1/6. Then he needed to prove it by ripping the leaves in half and sharing 1/2 of the green leaf with me.
Here’s the answer shown in leaves and Bruce’s own handwriting. 1/6!
Bruce and I are now on chapter 27 of Life of Fred Fractions, and nearing the end.
I still really like the book a lot, but I’m less impressed by it as we near the end. I think the author relies too much on traditional algorithms to teacher mathematical concepts. This is completely contrary to my approach to teaching math, which is Constructivist in philosophy. (For more information on Constructivism, please see my post at: http://teachingmybabytoread.blog.com/2011/03/15/subtraction/)
Earlier in the book, it was easy to do a lot of Constructivist activities and explanations side by side with Life of Fred. To compare, order, reduce, add and subtract fractions for example, Bruce experimented with the Right Start Fraction strips in addition to working with the algorithms taught in Life of Fred. So when the book talked about 2/6 being the same as 1/3, Bruce really understood that well, because he could build those fractions himself.
The fraction strips were also helpful for learning about mixed numbers, and the rules about 0/7 = 0 and 7/7 = 1. In all honesty though, Bruce had a really good understanding of fractions before we even started reading Life of Fred, because of all the times he played Reader Rabbit 2nd Grade math. When he was four and five, we also played lots of games with my homemade fraction cards, such as Fraction War, Capture the Fraction, etc.
I had originally taught him how to reduce fractions, using M’nMs and peanut butter. I’ll have to save the explanation for that one for another time!
Fast forward to now, when we are in the higher chapters of Life of Fred and it is now talking about multiplying fractions, and rules about canceling. Now I can really tell that I never taught past fourth grade, or I probably would have had some tricks up my sleeve to teach these concepts from a Constructivist perspective.
In multiplying fractions, “of” meaning the same thing as “times” makes sense. I’ll be able to explain this if I drag out some M’nMs and peanut butter again. But explaining how canceling works, in a hands-on lesson, still eludes me. If anyone has any ideas please let me know! I’m definitely not satisfied with relying on the algorithm alone, which is what is offered in Life of Fred.